Top 7 Foods for Sustaining Energy on the Trail (or Anywhere)

When you're out hiking or skiing or climbing, it's important to make sure you've got enough fuel in your tank to get you there and back. But when you're out on the trail for a few hours and don't have much room in your pack, your usual double cheeseburger, slice of pizza, or cup of [...]

When you're out hiking or skiing or climbing, it's important to make sure you've got enough fuel in your tank to get you there and back. But when you're out on the trail for a few hours and don't have much room in your pack, your usual double cheeseburger, slice of pizza, or cup of yogurt isn't going to make it. You need foods that can not only boost and sustain your energy during exercise, but are also portable enough to make the trip.

So to find out what foods would fit the bill, I spoke to two experts on the subject: Joy Dubost, PhD, a registered dietitian, certified specialist in sports dietetics, and spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association (soon to become the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics), and Donna-Lee Smith, a registered dietitian and former fitness competitor who specializes in nutrition and cardiac health at Hamilton General Hospital in Hamilton, Ontario.

The key thing to keep in mind, they told me, is not just nutrition, but you also have to make sure any foods you bring are "shelf stable." The danger zone for bacteria is 40 degrees to 140 degrees Fahrenheit. That means it's important to choose foods that can be in that temperature range without causing illness from bacteria. Most foods that require refrigeration can be at room temp for about 2 hours before hitting that zone and spoiling. If the outside temp is above 90 degrees? Then that time is reduced to 1 hour. If you're only going out for an hour or so, you can bring anything and be OK. Longer? You're going to have to pack wisely.

So here are their picks for the 7 Best Foods for Sustaining Energy on the Trail, along with some additional tips to make sure you're maintaining proper nutritional balance, so you don't run out of gas before you make it back home:

1. Nuts

According to Dubost, "Nuts are a powerhouse of nutrition. They're an excellent source of protein and also pack some carbs." And you don't have to stick with peanuts (which are actually a legume and not a nut). Cashews, hazelnuts, almonds, macadamia nuts, all provide essential nutrients like potassium, an electrolyte that you lose when you sweat. They also have B Vitamins that support energy by helping your body change the food you're eating into energy.

On an ounce basis, most nuts are under 200 calories, with almonds carrying the lowest, and macadamia the highest.

2. Trail Mix

Maybe you want to add a little more power to your peanuts. Dubost suggests adding dried fruit, like raisins which are a good source of iron, helping to provide much-needed oxygen to your blood cells, making you feel energized. But she warns to read your dried fruit labels, and choose one without a lot of sugar. Smith also advises you drink more water if you're eating a lot of dried fruit to help absorption.

If you want more than just GORP (good ol' raisins and peanuts), you can also add seeds, like pumpkin or sunflower. They are good sources of important healthy fats, poly- and mono- unsaturated fats, that can be protective of the heart and help reduce low-grade inflammation in the body which can lead to certain diseases like cardiovascular disease. And all of these ingredients will provide you with antioxidants. If you like a little sweetness in the mix, Dubost says you can add in bits of a good quality dark chocolate (it's got antioxidant powers too), but keep in mind it may melt depending on temps you'll encounter.

3. Dry Cereal

Dubost says, "Some cereals make good snacks, because they are easy to grab and go, fit in ziplock bags, and contain whole grains." And those whole grains are important for your diet, supplying carbs for sustained energy. Make sure to look on the label for the word "whole" like "whole wheat" and amount of whole grains it contains. Or better yet, look for the Whole Grains Council seal. Bonus: Many cereals also contain essential vitamins and minerals like B Vitamins and iron.

4. Granola Bars / Cereal Bars

Like your cereal in bar form, rather than digging in out of a plastic bag? Grab a cereal bar, granola bar or whole grain oatmeal square. They'll deliver the nutrition more conveniently. Look for ones with fruits, nuts and whole grains. "Just make sure to watch the sugar content," says Dubost. They can be high in some of these snacks.

5. Peanut Butter or Other Nut Butters

This can be spread on whole grain crackers or bread. And 5-6 whole grain crackers would give you a day's serving of whole grains. So you're not only gettng same benefit as you do from the nuts, but also the added benefit of the whole grains. Many stores now sell nut butters in convenient packets as well, making them even easier to pack.

6. Portable Fruit

Portable means it's easy to grab and go, and is ready to eat no matter where you are. Fruits like bananas, apples, oranges, and pears. While these are not a good source of protein, they do provide essential nutrients, fiber, and antioxidents. For example, citrus fruits and apples and pears have Vitamin C, and bananas have potassium and fiber.

And while fruits have carbs, these carbs won't give you sustained energy. Your body reacts differently to different carbs, and these are fructose, which give you quick energy, but not sustained. "So if you're going for a pretty lengthy hike," says Dubost, "you can have fruit within the first hour, then go for the cereal or trail mix into the second hour for more sustained energy."

7. Beef Jerky

My personal favorite, beef jerky was on Smith's list of favorites too, (along with canned tuna and crackers). High in protein, low in fat, and very shelf stable for long term packing, like for a weekend of camping, Dubost warns some jerky can be high in sodium. And while that can be bad for the average person, an athlete, or someone working up a good sweat during a several-hour hike or a day of skiing, needs sodium because we lose it when we sweat.

And Never Forget Your Fluids

While not considered a "food," many people seem to forget to pack enough fluid to keep hydrated. And being hydrated is essential, especially on long hikes or during prolonged outdoor exercise. Dehydration can make you feel tired and lethargic, two things you don't want to be out on the trails.

If you're going to be out an hour or so, only water is required. But of you're going to be out longer, or working up a sweat, or will be in high temps, think sports drink. These will replenish the electrolytes you'll be losing. Smith advises you read the sports drink labels before choosing one. "Look for a 4%-8% carb load," she told me. "Anything higher may cause gastrointestinal distress, especially if you are a first-timer or have stomach issues."

Dubost recommends drinking not only during exercise, but before as well. To keep your body "primed." Because you need to be drinking before you get thirsty. Thirst is a sign you are already getting dehydrated, and anything more than a 1% fluid loss is considered dehydration.

The ADA and the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) recommend 6-12 oz of fluid every 20 mins, depending on your tolerance and how much you're sweating.

Additional Advice and Tips

Going for an Hour? Prepare for Two

"Always prepare and pack food for longer than you think you'll be out," advises Smith, "just in case something should happen."

Balance is Key

Both Smith and Dubost say it's important to make sure whatever foods you bring provide you with a good balance of protein, carbs and good fats.

What You Eat Before is Just as Important

Smith says you should eat an easily digestible meal at least one hour before going out. "This should include a complex carbohydrate and an easily digestible protein and fat," she says, "like peanut butter, or any other nut butter, on a bagel and hearty cereal or oatmeal with milk."

Now Isn't the Time to Calorie Count

"For events that include more than one hour of intense exercise," says Smith, "your aim should be to try to eat 100-150 calories per hour to maintain proper glycemic and calorie balance.